Christie's posts record $3.5 billion first-half art sales

LONDON (Reuters) - Christie’s announced record first-half art sales of 2.2 billion pounds on Tuesday, a rise of 13 percent over the same period of 2011 and further evidence of the strength of the high end of the market.

A Christie's auctioneer conducts an auction of American Furniture and Folk Art and John James Audubon's 'The Birds of America' at Christie's auction in New York January 20, 2012. REUTERS/ Kena Betancur

The world’s largest auctioneer reported auction sales of 1.8 billion in the first six months of 2012, seven percent up on a year ago, while private art sales soared 53 percent to 413 million pounds. All figures include buyer’s premium.

However, there was a steep drop in Asian and Middle Eastern auction revenues to 234 million pounds, 23 percent down on the first half of 2011 as rampant Chinese buying cooled.

In terms of auction categories, the post-war and contemporary sector rose by 34 percent to 576 million pounds, jewellery jumped 28 percent to 190 million and old masters and 19th century art was up 50 percent to 72 million.

The top lot at Christie’s during the first half of the year was Mark Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” which sold for 53.9 million pounds ($86.9 million) at auction in New York in May.

Two Yves Klein works came in second and third place, with “Le rose du bleu” fetching 23.6 million pounds in London in June setting an auction record for the artist.

A Henry Moore sculpture, “Reclining Figure: Festival”, also set an artist record when it sold at a London auction in February for 19.1 million pounds.

Sotheby’s, Christie’s main rival, sold Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” for $120 million in New York in May, setting a new auction record for any work of art.

Christie’s said bidders had registered from 124 countries during the period under review and that 19 percent of all registered bids were placed by new clients.

Company officials have said that the growing, global client base had underpinned art prices at a time when concerns about the broader economy had hit other markets.

“The first six months of the year have demonstrated a healthy market that responds to great art and intelligent pricing,” said Steven Murphy, Christie’s CEO.

Soaring prices for the rarest works of art have encouraged owners to offer prized possessions for sale, while on the demand side, super-wealthy collectors ranging from Russian tycoons to institutional buyers in Qatar have created what auctioneers hope is a sustainable “virtuous circle”.

Several experts have warned that the disparity between art values and the broader economy cannot continue forever and that while the most coveted works are rising in value, other sectors of the art market are less healthy.

Christie’s noted, however, that sales at its South Kensington showrooms in London, where lesser works are typically sold, had risen 23 percent to 73 million pounds in the first six months.

Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato